Magnetic Insight Is Revolutionizing Seeing Inside Bodies

The Alameda startup uses MPI-like technology and iron oxide to create clear 3-D pictures of specific target areas within the body without using radiation or casting an unhelpful even glow over.


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Photos courtesy of Magnetic Insight

Doctors toil under a common but immutable truth: The human body is opaque. The aches and pains we complain about are mostly invisible. While cuts and burns are there for all to see, much of what ails us is out of sight.

Though scientists have spent over a century searching for ways to peer into the anatomical darkness, most imaging methods employ some radiation or cast an even glow over everything, making it hard to spot a single torn tendon amid the jumble of muscle and other tissue.

But an enterprising Alameda startup plans to change that. Magnetic Insight, founded in 2016, uses an MRI-like technology called MPI for Magnetic Particle Imaging to create clear 3-D pictures of specific target areas. It’s the torn tendon minus the rest, you might say. Developed over the past decade in the research lab of UC Berkeley bioengineering and electrical engineering and computer science professor Steven Conolly, MPI has proven in animal studies to generate high-contrast images with zero background clutter — and zero radiation.

“We could develop this in humans and solve both challenges,” Conolly said.

Apparently, the business community believes so, too. Last December, Magnetic Insight was awarded $18 million from 5AM Ventures, a leading life-sciences venture capital firm, to commercialize MPI technology. The company, which occupies modest offices off Atlantic Avenue, has built six scanners in a space probably not much bigger than Bill Gates’ garage. Those scanners are now being used for research in labs in the United States, China, and Canada. Magnetic Insight works closely with Stanford University.

Conolly was working in his UC Berkeley lab in 2005 when he spotted an article describing a new imaging technique. It sounded like MRI, but it wasn’t. MRI uses the body’s reservoir of water molecules to cause magnetic changes that generate detailed but low-contrast and evenly lit images. Instead, this new technology used iron oxide nanoparticles to generate brilliant and specific images of target tissue. The contrast was 22 million times that of an MRI. The iron oxide (aka rust) was harmless, being either picked up by hemoglobin or excreted. Conolly showed the paper to Patrick Goodwill, his graduate student then. As Goodwill recalled, “We looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this.’”

Goodwill, whom Conolly refers to as “Elon Musk squared,” taught himself the necessary physics, engineering, software, and imaging theory to construct a scanner from scratch. Working mostly alone, Goodwill built eight scanners in eight years from mostly used parts. His first scanner was the size of a toaster. The next, a table. With each tweak, Goodwill’s scanners grew a little more sophisticated, a little bigger. When Goodwill needed a crane to move version No. 8, Conolly decided it was time to take MPI out of the university and into a manufacturing space.

That’s when they reached out to Anna Christensen, a business leader for medical imaging in Alameda. Christensen had spent her career looking at MRIs, PET scans, X-rays, and the like, but she had never seen images like the ones Conolly and Goodwill showed her — of biological events happening deep in the tissue, over long periods of time. “I saw things I didn’t know were possible,” she said.

Christensen was impressed but knew the business world required a product portable enough to shop around. She told Goodwill to shrink version No. 8 to a shippable size. Within a year, he’d done it, and Christensen was sold. She left her job to help launch a new company with a fledgling technology. With the three as co-founders, Christensen was named CEO, Goodwill CTO, and Conolly, who still teaches, scientific advisor. Magnetic Insight was born.

Half of all women have what is known as “radiologically dense breast tissue.” If you’re one of them — and young — your doctor may well miss the early cancer cells lurking in your mammogram. If you have a tumor or blood clot in your lungs, your doctor may not be able to spot either because of the lungs’ complex structure. If you’re a stroke victim, the resulting inflammation — which can be almost as deadly as the stroke itself — can’t even be seen with current imaging technology. Magnetic Particle Imaging has the potential to reveal them.

For Christensen, the most exciting area is in the emerging field of “theranostics.” The word combines both “therapy” and “diagnostics” and signals a shift from conventional to personalized medicine. Magnetic Insight is working with research scientists to develop custom-designed drugs for specific cancers, conditions, and diseases that can be tracked over time. This has application in stem cell and immunotherapy treatments, to make sure the medicines reach and then act on their targets. Eventually, MPI should be able to help doctors peer into the anatomical darkness and fix what they find there.

Back in the Magnetic Insight work area, things are gearing up. The $18 million infusion will allow Goodwill to quadruple his workshop, providing room to build seven scanners at once. He and Christensen are staffing up, too, assembling a dream team that includes other Conolly lab graduates and scouting for others with backgrounds in engineering, marketing, and operations. On whether hospitals would be willing to invest in one more imaging technology, Christensen emphasized that MPI can see into the body in a way that others cannot. In addition, MPI can be offered in a mobile unit. She believes that within a few years, Magnetic Insight will have conquered the necessary physics to build an MPI scanner for human use.

Goodwill likes to stress that each imaging technology has its place: X-rays for broken bones, MRIs for soft tissue, PET scans for quick metabolic views. “MPI just adds to the arsenal,” he said.

But Christensen can’t forget the day she caught a glimpse of the future of medical imaging. “It’s rare to walk into a new technology like this in your career,” she said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

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